Thursday, December 21, 2006

Komodo All Ye Faithful

Recently eaten: wild rice and scallops
Recent annoyance: excuses instead of solutions

It's been documented in the Bible and in Jurassic Park: immaculate conception

Female Komodo Dragon Has Virgin Births
Maybe females could live without males, at least for Komodo dragons. These behemoths of the reptile world can produce babies without fertilization by a male, scientists recently discovered.

Currently at London’s Chester Zoo, one mother-to-be named Flora [image] is waiting for her eight offspring to hatch, each one the result of a process called parthenogenesis—or a virgin conception.

“Parthenogenesis has never been documented in Komodo dragons before now, so this is absolutely a world first,” said co-researcher Kevin Buley of Chester Zoo.

No sperm needed

Parthenogenesis, in which an unfertilized egg develops to maturity, has been found in 70 species of vertebrates, including captive snakes and a monitor lizard species. In most of these reptile cases, this process is their only method of reproduction.

In some whiptail lizards, males have become somewhat of an accessory, and all individuals are female. The type of asexual reproduction in whiptail lizards generates all-female offspring.

The Komodo dragon, turns out, can do both: they can reproduce sexually or asexually depending on their environmental conditions. At most zoos, females live alone and are kept separate from other dragons.

Family affairs

With the ability to reproduce without male mates, Komodo females could potentially found an entirely new colony on their own. “Theoretically, a female Komodo dragon in the wild could swim to a new island and then lay a fertile clutch of eggs,” Buley said.

The downside is that all hatchlings resulting from this type of parthenogenesis are males. “These would grow up to mate with their own mother and therefore, within one generation, there would potentially be a population able to reproduce normally on the new island,” Buley explained.

In the long-term this Oedipus-like practice could lead to health problems associated with inbreeding, as the entire colony would have such low genetic diversity.

The results also have implications for captive-breeding programs that have sprouted to ensure the survival of the threatened lizards. Fewer than 4,000 Komodo dragons are thought to remain in the wild, residing on just three islands in Indonesia.

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